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A New Japanese Greeting

One day I was at a 上海1 sports centre2, playing table tennis with some friends. Table tennis is very popular here; the place I was at had about 10 tables in a gymnasium.

While the others were playing doubles, I had a wander around the centre. Next to the table tennis hall, there was a gym where a group of approximately 20 people were practising 空手3. There were men and girls of many ages, all in neat formation, doing drills. The instructor was at the front, barking out orders and counting. He wasn’t counting in English, or even Chinese, but was yelling out in a bloodcurdling voice 「いち・に・さん・よん」

Whenever people practice 空手, they do so using Japanese instead of the language of whichever country they are in. So all over the world, or at the very least all over 上海, there are instructors yelling out 「いち・に・さん・よん」 to their students, in deference to the Japanese origins of 空手. The same is true of Taekwondo, which has its origins in the Korean peninsula. When practising Taekwondo, commands are yelled out in Korean.

But as you can imagine, there aren’t many things that a 空手 instructor has cause to scream out at the top of his voice to his class. Anything spoken to individual fighters, or instructions on how to perform moves was said in Chinese. Language doesn’t play much part in beating an opponent to a pulp.

At the end of the training session, everyone got the opportunity to practise their 日本語4. Everyone lined up in single file along one of the walls, from tallest to shortest. Then the tallest one broke off, faced the second shortest, bowed and said a very polite thankyou. Then he continued to the third tallest fighter, thanking him also. Then the second shortest broke off, and did the same to the third tallest. This continued, and in this way, everyone got the chance to thank everyone else. Only the Japanese could have come up with such an efficient, polite way to end a training session.

Allow me to sidetrack a little though. This ‘polite thankyou’ had not been taught to each fighter. This was a 空手 lesson, not a language lesson. So no one had bothered to correct anyone else’s pronunciation, and no one in the room was a native speaker. I’ll also tell you that this greeting is usually rushed over very quickly by Japanese people when they have to say it to many people. Combine that with the fact that it’s usually mumbled under the breath, while bowing at 45 degrees, and you’ll find that in real life this utterance doesn’t always sound like it does when 夏子先生5 and her colleagues say it on JPod.

Let’s continue with the language lesson though. What do you think that each fighter said to each other? As I mentioned, it was a very polite thankyou.

Of course, it was 「ありがとうございます」, often the first phrase that a Japanese learner learns.

But it came out rather differently. As I mentioned, no one had taught anyone in the room the proper pronunciation, or explained the lightning-fast pronunciation of native 日本人 when saying this. So there was a room full of people bowing deeply to each other and yelling at the top of their voices,

“Osssss… Ossss… Osssss…… Ossss…..”

And I totally agree with this pronunciation. I have been in a roomfull of サラリマン6 when they have greeted each other. They have bowed deeply to each other and said what sounded to my ears like “Osss….”. I actually expected them to come up from their bows with a sheepish grin, expecting “Osss” to be a joke or something.

I have even tried it out. I met a group of Japanese friends last week, and upon meeting them, bowed and said “Osss….”. I expected them to laugh at me, but they returned my “Ossss….” with an “Osss….” of their own.

1 シャン・ハイ
2 center
3 から・て
4 に・ほん・ご
5 なつ・こ・せん・せい
6 Japanese white collar workers. ‘Salary Men’.